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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Seeking a cultural historian of libertarianism.

Here's something I'd like your help with: I want to find a historian who has studied American libertarianism as a social or cultural movement. I'm not interested in arguments for libertarian ideas or policies, nor am I interested in libertarian histories. Instead, I want to find someone who can tell an academically sound story about the people, institutions, and periodicals that have advocated libertarianism in the U.S. Any suggestions?

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 18 March 2006 at 6:01 PM

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Kevin M:

March 20, 2006 03:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's not a perfect fit, Chris, but a good start is a book I've plugged on your blog before: The Right Nation by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It's a political and intellectual history of the American right throughout the 20th century, and one of its goals is to explain how paleo-conservatives (William F. Buckley, Prescott Bush) evolved into neo-conservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush). The libertarians play a large role in that story. The authors talk about the authors and institutions that have advanced the libertarian viewpoint. Everyone from Ayn Rand to The American Enterprise Institute is mentioned and their place in the larger history is noted, but the real focus is not on the development of libertarian ideas or libertarian culture (almost an oxymoron there!) so much as the way that libertarian views were brought to Washington, DC by activists over the last 40 years. Still, it's a good start and an excellent read, and knowing your interests I'm certain you'd enjoy it. If I owned a copy I'd poke through the bibliography for you. I'm sure there are good leads there.

Why the interest?


March 20, 2006 05:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Kevin! I've wondered for a long time how to make sense of the UU faction that identifies strongly with libertarianism. Virtually none of the clergy I know hold ideologically libertarian views, but every congregation I've known has a good number of men (usually) who champion strongly libertarian views. I'm looking for intellectual histories that would help me understand liberal-religious libertarianism.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge are writers for The Economist, right?

Kevin M:

March 23, 2006 03:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, they're the Washington editors of The Economist. The fact that they're British is a strength of the book: they know what they're talking about but they write with a certain intellectual distance. The comparison of American and European conservatives is quite interesting.

I'm not a libertarian (although I'm much less of a radical leftist than I once was) but I appreciate libertarians. I find their unwavering faith in free markets wishful but rational: unlike religious conservatives, I find that libertarians are people that I can sit and talk with. It's a philosophy of radical individualism, and as such it fits in with the UU emphasis on freedom, which is always in tension with our emphasis on community. "Don't tell me what to believe" is a short stone's throw from "don't tell me what to do with my money." That, I think, is why libertarians sometimes become active UUs.

Personally, I wish we had more of them. I've long thought that there is a great potential for conversation between liberals and libertarians. Unlike the religious right, whose positions ultimately rest on their faith, libertarians and liberals speak the same language of reason and evidence even if they tend to draw very different conclusions about the world. In the current political environment I see much greater moral urgency in rebuilding the moderate center than in banking to the far left as most UUs seem to be doing, and I think there's real potential for moderate liberals and moderate libertarians to start building a "coalition of the rational." We're well positioned to begin this, my UU friends. (Hint, hint!)

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